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Our Own Opera Company Celebrates 40 Years

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By Christy Howard Womack

One man’s vision to expand the cultural landscape of Knoxville was met with the support and dedication of a group of civic-minded artistic optimists to create a true treasure within our community that serves all of its citizens. Forty years in the making, Knoxville Opera is a world class production company, but it is so much more than that. 

Marketing Director Michael Torano explains, “It is a wonderful thing that Knoxville Opera exists in a market of our size, but few people realize that we are busy throughout the year through our education and community outreach programs. When we aren’t busy doing main stage productions, we are busy creating our community events calendar to expose as many people as possible to the arts.”

Bringing the magic of opera to the general public is immensely rewarding. “Our in-school program was established seven years ago. We take an opera we are performing each season and present it in an abbreviated 40-minute version in English. The production, which includes a small set, costumes, and props, is performed daily in two schools. During the show the pianist/host explains the opera’s story. At the end, the students speak directly with the performers in a very animated interchange of Q&A. To observe students stop talking and fidgeting and become absolutely absorbed in the action and music is amazing. With our education and community programs we are providing critical opportunities for people of all ages to discover that opera and musical theater is for everyone. The combination of the theatrical and musical elements in opera highlighted by the magnificence of the human voice, is a feast for the senses! We are fortunate enough to have generous donors who help pay our operating costs and hire fantastic guest artists, but those who also fund the education program are leaving a legacy that cannot be overstated,” says Torano.

None of this would have happened without the vision of Edward Zambara, the enthusiastic professor on the music faculty of the University of Tennessee. Zambara knew that the presence of a quality, professional civic opera company would enhance his students’ practical experience. Knoxville’s own Mary Costa, a star soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, believed in the vision, and lent her own reputation and creative talents to launch the first production, Verdi’s La Traviata at the Bijou Theatre which premiered on November 3, 1978. Those who were there say they will never forget it. The audience was mesmerized. The entire community pulsed with a new pride and enthusiasm. 

Many public-spirited people saw the benefits the new venture would bring to the community and provided their financial support. Among them were Sonia Gore, who made a $300,000 donation in memory of her late husband, Frederick Gore. 

The importance of Mary Costa’s involvement cannot be overstated. As the original voice of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Costa was extremely popular. Current Executive Director and Conductor Brian Salesky says, “Mary Costa really began the company. Her participation as the star in the company’s first two productions was a key element in the initial success. We are so fortunate that Mary is still with us, attending almost every production.”

The company began as Knoxville Civic Opera Company and changed its name and became an entirely professional opera company in 1983. It outgrew the Bijou Theatre, which held 750 people, and moved to the Tennessee Theatre and even used the Civic Auditorium for big shows. Since 1981, the company has had three Principal Conductors; Robert Lyall who served from 1982-1999, Francis Graffeo from 2000-2005, and Brian Salesky who has served in the position since 2005. 
In April of 1986, Knoxville Opera undertook a production that attracted nationwide attention, Susannah. Composer Carlisle Floyd, known as the dean of American opera composers, was on hand to serve as stage director. The production was so special that it was taped by Public Television and aired throughout the Southeast with funding from the Alcoa Foundation. Brian Salesky recalls it as a great moment of pride for the company. “Anytime that you are able to telecast a production on PBS, it’s a significant opportunity, especially for an opera company not in a large population market.”

In its 10th anniversary year, the company produced the world premiere of Kenton Coe’s Rachel, the bittersweet love story of Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel Donelson. Conductor Robert Lyall when interviewed for the 25th anniversary celebration said, “there’s no event in the opera world that has quite the glamour and allure of a world premiere.”
Another blockbuster moment occurred in the season of 1991-92 when Luciano Pavarotti came to town to perform at Thompson-Boling Arena. It set attendance records with over 13,000 people at the event, and of course increased the visibility and credibility of Knoxville Opera.
The early 90s saw the formation of the East Tennessee Opera Guild, as a support organization for the company. The Guild holds a series of annual fundraisers including the Opera Ball, a May Croquet Tournament, and a June Martini Party. The Guild exists to fundraise certainly, but more importantly to plan events that create engagement opportunities for the community. The Martini party, for example, started as an intimate evening in someone’s home, but has grown steadily, entertaining over 200 guests at last season’s affair at Eric Barton’s Villa Collina estate.

Knoxville Opera’s largest community outreach event is the Rossini Festival, an international street fair, first held in April of 2002. The initial vision was to have the Knoxville Opera and University of Tennessee Opera Theatre spring productions on the same weekend in the Gay Street theaters, connected by a street fair. Dr. Monroe Trout and his wife Sandra, inducted this year into the KO Hall of Fame, were instrumental in funding the initial Rossini Festivals. Over the course of the Festival’s first 16 years over 500,000 people have had the opportunity to experience the cultural extravaganza which includes 1000 performers on five outdoor stages. Opera artists, choirs, instrumental and jazz ensembles, and a variety of dance companies provide 50 hours of entertainment. What began as an Italian street fair, has grown into an International Street Fair, featuring food and cuisine from all around the globe – Vietnamese, German, Greek, Mexican, Italian and American. While it’s the company’s largest community event, it is not a fundraiser given that there is no admission charge.

“We are weather dependent,” explains Torano. “It is a large and expensive event which, for the past 16 years, has been an important part of the community’s history. Our wonderful Mayor Madeline Rogero declared the Rossini Festival a Legacy event, making ours the only festival that gets to close Gay Street for 24 hours. This year’s event will be held on Saturday, April 14.”
The audience is always at the forefront when Knoxville Opera is planning its performances and community outreach programs. Conductor Brian Salesky thinks of two productions that stand out from an audience appreciation standpoint. Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele was performed in the Tennessee Theatre in the 2015-16 season. “This was the only time the orchestra has been placed on the stage, upstage of the action which included scenes on the hydraulic pit being raised and lowered. With scenes rising from the depths and then disappearing, it was an intriguing staging. Featuring a storyline with the devil and witches, it made for a tremendous amount of eye candy for the audience. In addition, we put two antiphonal brass bands in the balcony. With brass positioned throughout the theater, it really gave the audience a thrill. The audience was literally screaming at the end. That normally happens at a rock concert, not an opera. It was really over the top and stands out in my mind as very, very special.”

In the same season, Puccini’s Tosca, was given a unique production. The storyline takes place in three very specific venues in Rome, Italy, and Salesky, always the innovator, wanted to allow the audience to truly participate in the performance. Act One was at the Church Street United Methodist Church. Because it seats only 700, there were two performances so everyone had a chance to be a part of this unique experience. Then everyone travelled – soloists, chorus, orchestra, crew, and the audience to the Knoxville Convention Exhibition Center for Act Two. Finally, everyone walked across World’s Fair Park to the Amphitheater for Act Three. 

“There was a reason I did it in this manner,” explains Salesky. “I always wanted to give the audience some feeling of what it was for those characters to process through the last hours of their lives. I’ve been in all three of the actual Roman venues, and I thought how phenomenal would it be if one were able to give the audience the experience of ‘walking the walk’ almost in real time. Act One at the Church was spiritually and dramatically moving. I saw people in tears including members of the cast. A producer’s job is to give audiences impactful experiences, and I know Tosca delivered that.”

The audience played a role within this production. They were the people of Rome. “There were people everywhere – in the pews, in the balconies, and in the nave sitting where the church choir would normally be. The production on an experiential level was extraordinary and I am proud that Knoxville Opera was able to do this for our public.

Salesky’s passion is palpable, and as the author, I was mesmerized by his descriptions. When I asked whether he would bring these experiences back again someday to Knoxville, he said, “If I’m here long enough, then yes.”

This 40th anniversary season was constructed to be a major celebration of the company and promises to also be one of the best. It kicked off in October with a 40th Anniversary Gala concert presented by Dr. Sharon Lord. In honor of the inaugural performance forty years ago, the concert was held at the Bijou Theatre, back where it all started. The evening was a special, intimate, one-night-only event. And to cap it all off they inducted eight new members into the Knoxville Opera Hall of Fame bringing the total membership to 40. Each of these members has been instrumental in their support of the company.

That same weekend the Ruby Opera Ball sold out, and the company performed at BOO! At The Zoo. Earlier in the month there was a Broadway-Operetta Concert at Tellico Community Church, and the annual Knoxville Goes To Church concert. In-school performances of Turandot will begin in January. 

Not one to rest, on its laurels or anywhere else for that matter, the Knoxville Opera is thrilled to present their largest stage productions this season. Puccini’s Turandot in February and Verdi’s Aida in May feature about 200 artists in each show. The larger than usual forces require the pit, stage and backstage spaces of the Civic Auditorium which explains the company’s departure from their home at the Tennessee Theatre.  “It’s a very expensive season for us,” said Torano, “but we’re celebrating.”

Even those unfamiliar with opera will recognize the theme song “Nessun dorma” that plays through Turandot. “It was made famous by legendary Italian tenor Pavarotti and became his anthem. Everyone will recognize the tune and be mighty happy to see where it comes in the opera,” said Salesky.

“Aida also has a very familiar tune – the Triumphal Scene march, featuring the long Egyptian trumpets on stage.  Most people will know it from high school graduations and football games, but it is such a thrill to experience it live with 125 people on stage in its original, theatrical context. Composers give us the opportunities to overwhelm audiences by using all of our senses, other than your taste buds. This is a proud moment for us as a company but it’s also a proud moment for the people of Knoxville who supported us and made this happen,” said Salesky.

“Forty years ago, people with great vision started Knoxville Opera,” Salesky continued. “They could not have imagined where the company is today. We want to celebrate their vision, and to celebrate our audience. We are privileged to joyfully serve our community.”


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